Arguably, any album that uses the image of a smoking cat wearing a Masonic symbol and flanked by palm trees as cover art is guaranteed to be fresh, exciting and generally excellent on every level. However, there is more to Wavves’ latest album, King of the Beach, than its eye-catching sleeve. On its third full-length album, the San Diego-born surf rock outfit delivers a brand new sound that greatly benefits from, all things considered, a timely change in direction.
The group’s first two records (Wavves and Wavvves) showcased a distinctive brand of noise that has come to characterize their niche genre of updated, grungy, 21st century surf rock: extremely low-fidelity production, coupled with gritty, occasionally headache-inducing distortion. This trashy, euphoric, high-energy sound seemed to have become their slightly repetitive signature style. In addition, after a series of decidedly unfavorable appearances in the blogosphere, lead singer and general mastermind Nathan Williams came close to achieving pariah status by attracting the ire of self-proclaimed critics, bloggers and hipsters alike. After a fair amount of drama, Williams was the sole member of an increasingly uncool club before three new faces joined him. Simply put, more of the same would have been quite unseemly.
With that in mind, King of the Beach is a resounding success; it embodies a much more varied, surprising and altogether rewarding effort from Wavves. For one thing, we can actually hear Williams sing for the first time, a refreshing experience, as they dabble in a myriad of different sounds and techniques. The sound-bombardment approach is not wholly abandoned: In songs like “Baseball Cards” and “Post Acid,” layers of high-pitched synthesizers or shrieking guitars are piled on to the chirpy, up-tempo beats in order to place a nigh-impenetrable wall of sound between the listener and Williams’ nihilistic lyrics. However, this does not get in the way of the new styles they work hard to embrace.
At last, the Wavves’ sound is no longer a contemporary version of the Beach Boys under the influence of an undoubtedly more aggressive cocktail of drugs, but truly their very own band. Naïve, fast-paced indie rock remains the leitmotif, but it is laced with all kinds of goodies. “When Will You Come,” for example, has all the hallmarks of a soulful slow-jam, supported by distant, ethereal back-up vocals. On “Baseball Cards,” edgy, Klaxon-esque electro vibes see the Wavves experiment with the kind of grandiose, synth-heavy compositions the London group is best known for, only more joyously carefree. They even craft a (sometimes) delightfully delicate and emotionally driven piece with “Green Eyes,” which lightens the mood and changes the pace as the album starts to wind down. In the undeniably most original and perhaps best song on the LP, “Convertible Balloon” breaks down to a bubbly, downright danceable groove reminiscent of Hot Chip’s very own brand of infectious dance-pop.
Despite a couple songwriting contributions by the new members, King of the Beach’s lyrics do not stray too far from their previous material, which is perhaps a good thing. After all, Williams’ purposefully repetitive, childish and quite endearing self-loathing was what enticed us in the first place. King of the Beach is not to be confused as an act of chin-up, hipper-than-thou bravado; it voices the moans and hopeless complaints of a bored, directionless youth with no prospects other than getting “f—ed up” and “Sitting alone / Playing Nintendo in [his] room.” The repetition and simplicity of the lyrics only echo how painfully dull, pointless and mind-numbing his everyday life has become, to the point where nothing makes sense anymore: “I don’t walk outside / Cause where would I go? / […] Because I don’t wanna smoke outside”.
In this sense, these songs possess an artificial, almost comic one-dimensionality simply because Williams cannot possibly be serious – at least not entirely. Taken at the second degree, King of the Beach becomes an ironic caricature of a culture that somehow thrives on this kind of angsty detachment and narcissistic self-pity.